Joel Augustus Rogers: black international journalism, archival research, and black print culture.

Author:Asukile, Thabiti
Position:Critical essay

J. A. Rogers, international correspondent of the Negro press and research student in African and European history of Negroes, returned to the United States last Saturday aboard the SS Albert Ballin of the Hamburg American line after spending four years in the best libraries of Europe; and traveling throughout Europe and North Africa seeking facts on early Negro history. Mr. Rogers was met at the pier by George Schuyler, author, lecturer, journalist, and organizer of the Young Negroes Co-operative League. ... Mr. Rogers returned with much material gathered during his long stay abroad, and plans a lecture lour of the United States to last seven months, during which he will discuss the startling information he found in his research work. He brought back 100 biographies of great Negroes, such as kings, statesmen, generals, philosophers, scientists, poets, etc; 150 photos of these notables of history; 24 photos of Negro kings of Egypt which he secured from museums in Cairo, and several prints of gods and goddesses of Egypt showing that they were unmistakably Negroes. --Floyd J. Calvin, Pittsburgh Courier, 1931 (1) The published works of Joel Augustus Rogers, journalist, historian, and author of the two-volume World's Great Men of Color, and other important histories of African-descended people are known currently to only a handful of scholars. Even those historians and anthropologists who are aware of Rogers's self-published and popular scholarly works tend only to remember him for the biographical portraits of African and African American leaders, and his investigations of the history of "sex and race" in antiquity and in the modern era. Most contemporary college students have never heard of J. A. Rogers nor are they aware of his long journalistic career and pioneering archival research. Rogers committed his life to fighting against racism and he bad a major influence on black print culture through his attempts to improve race relations in the United States and challenge white supremacist tracts aimed at disparaging the history and contributions of people of African descent to world civilizations.

Born in Jamaica on 6 September 1880 in Negril, Westermoreland Parish, to Samuel Rogers and Emily Johnstone Rogers, we know little about Joel Augustus's childhood and early life in Jamaica. As an adult, Rogers was a private person and what is known of his early life comes mostly from his widow Helga Rogers-Andrews. According to Rogers-Andrews, Rogers's family moved to St. Ann's Bay where as a boy he met Marcus Garvey, who in 1913 founded the all-black Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which is considered the largest secular organization in the African Diaspora. After Rogers finished primary school, he applied for a scholarship to attend a university in the Caribbean, but was denied admission (where and why is not known). Writing in 1922 recalling his life in Jamaica, Rogers noted there were "few scholarships to universities in the British Isles and to local colleges." (2) Rather than pursuing schooling, Rogers decided to join the British Royal Army and served with the Royal Garrison Artillery at Port Royal for four years. The exact years of service are unknown, but according to Rogers-Andrews, "When his unit was to be transferred abroad, a medical examiner revealed a heart murmur, and Joel was considered unfit for foreign service. ..." (3)

In 1906 Rogers decided to emigrate to the United States, briefly living in New York City and then Boston before settling in Chicago in 1908. While living in Chicago from 1908 to 1921, Rogers worked much of the time as a Pullman porter to help pay for his studies in commercial art at the Chicago Art Institute. Rogers also mentioned that he tried to enroll at the University of Chicago, but was denied admission because he did not possess the necessary high school credits. He had planned on studying to become an interior decorator, but when he became aware of the racist information and published literature pervasive in American society, as well as the racial violence, Rogers's outlook on life in the United States changed. Evidently, Rogers decided to pursue a career in journalism once he landed a job as a reporter with the Chicago Enterprise. In 1921 Rogers relocated to New York City, and eventually found a temporary position as an assistant editor for Marcus Garvey's Daily Negro Times, a failed UNIA publishing project. In 1923 Rogers began writing columns for the Pittsburgh Courier and the New York Amsterdam News, which would become major contributions to black print culture in the 20th century. (4)

This essay seeks to highlight an important portion of Rogers's Africana research and scholarship in two major areas: Rogers's contribution to black print culture in the area of international journalism; and the scholarly black biographies and histories that were disseminated as multivolume texts, as well as through illustrated portraits and vignettes published in black newspapers around the country. It will also discuss how Rogers's scholarship was received by historians, social scientists, and public figures in the United States, England, and Africa in the first half of the 20th century. (5)


J. A. Rogers's journalistic and historical writings are considered part of the tradition that social scientist St. Clair Drake referred to as "vindicationist history." Rogers dedicated his life to advancing the view that people of African descent were throughout world history extremely influential in the building of ancient and modern civilizations which made significant contributions to human progress. Rogers understood "race" as a social construction and how white racialism functioned to advance the interests of whites in their contests with the so-called colored races; however, Rogers believed there was only one race--the human race. In surveying the totality of Rogers's research and writings, it becomes clear that it was not limited to African diasporic biographies or race mixture in the ancient and modern world. Rogers was an exceptional journalist, but is rarely given this recognition. In his journalistic reporting, Rogers also sought to vindicate the lives and experiences of Africans and people of African descent throughout the African Diaspora. Historians V. P. Franklin and Bettye Collier-Thomas argued that "race journalism" was an extension of African American 19th-century vindicationist journalism: "African American journalists and publishers in the black press often competed with the preachers and politicians for the position as 'the leading spokespersons for the race.' However, biographies of important black politicians and journalists reveal that they too engaged in race vindicationist activities." (6)

Rogers's vindicationist journalism in many respects mirrors the tradition associated with the 19th Pan-Africanist Edward Wilmot Blyden whose journalistic and literary writings aimed to vindicate people of African descent from white racist charges of cultural inferiority. One of the major themes in Blyden's writings was that sub-Saharan Africans had made significant contributions to both Christian and Islamic civilizations. While Blyden's intellectual and journalistic activities have been the subject of scholarly research, J. A. Rogers's international journalism and scholarly research, especially in the late 1920s and early 1930s when he traveled extensively in Europe and Africa, has been overlooked. (7) Rogers spent most of his journalistic career working for the Pittsburgh Courier. From 1923 to 1966 Rogers's columns appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier and for a brief period simultaneously in the New York Amsterdam News and covered a wide range of social and political issues concerning African Americans. For example, in 1926 Rogers wrote about his experience posing as a Garveyite and interviewing John Powell and Ernest Sevier Cox, the white supremacist leaders of the Anglo-Saxon Club; and his attending the debate in the Virginia Senate over the revision of the "Racial Integrity Act of 1924," which banned interracial marriage. Rogers offered his views about black Caribbean women emigrating to the United States; his travels to lecture at historically black colleges in the South; and his support for A. Philip Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, newly organized in 1925 after years of struggle with the owners of the nation's railroads. Rogers also reviewed books and movies for newspapers, and in 1923 the Amsterdam News serialized two of his three published novels, From Superman to Man (1917) and Blood Money (1923). (8)

In the late 1920s and early 1930s Rogers was employed as an international correspondent and travel journalist for the Pittsburgh Courier and Amsterdam News. (9) Rogers traveled throughout Europe on two different occasions in the 1920s. His first trip began in June 1925 and he remained in Europe for five months. During this visit he traveled throughout the British Isles before spending a brief time in Paris. In London, Rogers began preliminary research on African history in the reading room at the British Museum, where he met the Jamaican-born scholar Theophilus Scholes (1854-1937), whose two-volume opus, Glimpses of Ages (1905, 1908), criticized the racialist and class ideologies underpinning British imperialist policies. Rogers recalled, "Dr. Scholes invited me to tea and we discussed the race situation for several hours. From his experience, he thought England was a bad place for a Negro, but when I told him of conditions in America, he admitted that the former was nothing in comparison." (10) Rogers met other distinguished and undistinguished white and black people in London, including George Lansbury, MP; John Harris, secretary of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society; Professor A. A. Chinappa of Egypt and Zanzibar; and Amanda Aldridge, daughter of the famous African American stage actor Ira D...

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